Farmer Dave and the Unbreakable Ground
Updated: Jul 1
Last season, Farmer Dave and I spent a lot of time with each other in the BGG, up at Hannover Hilltop gleaning vegetables, and in my car bringing vegetables to Feeding Westchester. During those car rides we engaged in conversation on a number of topics from music, to politics, to whatever, but they would always come back to gardening and general agriculture. One topic we kept falling into, which was more of a shared and long-running observation, was us noticing and commenting on spaces where we wanted to put a garden. We'd both see a field and map out a crude planting plan in our minds. We'd see a spot of green in front of a house and share our botanic ruminations on the potential quality of the soil. We'd see an office park, and figure out how much yield we could get off its front lawn and whether or not we'd be able to convince the owners to let us use their hose. The phrase "now THAT's a ground I'd like to farm" was not an uncommon exclamation within the cabin of my trusty Subaru. Every big lawn, every unused lot, every "improved" bit of land that served little purpose, we would talk about how much food we could grow and end with how it was such a shame that food was not presently being grown there.
For me it hasn't stopped. Every time I see land with potential, I perform quick mental calculations of how many pounds of vegetables I could grow if I could ever put a spade into the ground. Even at the BGG, I keep looking at the rest of the green areas outside the garden fence and I think to myself, "I wonder if I could get Mayor Mary onboard for giving us another 30 or so feet." (Subtle, huh?)
The Grass is NOT Greener
Mary Liz and I got an email last week from Farmer Dave who is out on the left coast trying to break ground on some garden beds in some seemingly unbreakable ground. He has volunteered to farm a plot with a group out there called *Community Healing Gardens, a fine group of gardening activists who also wish to provide for the food insecure, and who would gladly accept your monetary donations (more of my subtlety there). However, conditions in his neck of SoCal are a bit more difficult for farming than they are here in the good ol' humid-as-hell-in-the-summers Northeast. It's almost comical.
Here, the ground is soft. There, the ground is hard. Here, the air is moist. There, the air is dry. Here, it rains sometimes. There, it doesn't rain most times. Of course, the situation I describe out there is not everywhere. I mean it's California! No, it's just the part where Dave decided to lend his talents. And boy are those talents needed.
From the looks of the garden he's working, there's no topsoil to grow crops in, just packed down clay that's as hard as rock. Under different circumstances, there are many crops that do well in clay including lettuce, Swiss chard, and broccoli to name a few. But the clay needs to be loose or else roots will never be able to penetrate into the ground very far making them less likely to flourish. From what Dave told me, water won't even go into the ground because the clay is so packed and baked. All it does is sit on the surface and evaporate into the smog.
Another issue Dave is having out there is an issue most of us gardeners had to deal with this year, which is a lack of seed. The Covid victory garden movement has led to hordes of people grabbing up seeds as fast as they could, which leaves guys like Dave empty-handed. Even here at the BGG, early on Mary Liz and I went on a little shopping spree to grab up whatever we could and still ended up with a slightly less diverse garden plant population than we initially would have wanted.
Since Farmer Dave has his own space he wishes to grow on while out west but no seeds to plant, I may just send him a few of our leftover seeds from the BGG to help him get going. After all that time spent together discussing places where we'd want to plant vegetables and what we'd do if we could get our hands on whatever plot we saw, it's particularly ironic that Dave has some space out there to do such a thing, but no seeds to do it with. Talk about frustrating!
A lot of the things we take for granted over here in the green and wet northeast simply aren't present out where Dave is. It's our abundance of resource and optimal climate that allow us to easily build gardens like the BGG in Westchester, where the biggest issue is space. This lack of space is partly due to topography, but also due to an overeagerness in some towns to build houses, apartments, and parking lots instead of parks while at the same time having and uneagerness (not sure if that's actually a word) to reverse the poor local zoning decisions of the past. We'll be interested to hear more from Dave about his experiences trying to grow vegetables in what is effectively a small desert. In the meantime, I have a lush BGG to tend to and some seeds to mail.
* Last year, I put together a small group (which includes Manu, Meredith, Farmer Dave, a few others, and hopefully in the future Mary Liz if I can lure her into our web) similar to Community Healing Gardens. Our aims are two-fold: 1) We want to establish and operate Giving Gardens wherever we can. 2) We want to help towns and schools to establish Giving Gardens like the BGG by providing logistical assistance, coordinating volunteers, and advising on garden operations. We were well on our way to incorporating, and we were working with the Pelham Union Free School District on a possible plan to establish school Giving Gardens as our first "gig" when things had to get put on hold when the world got all diseasy. We will be picking up where we left off at the end of the summer.